Photographs: Kathryn Larsen
Text: Michaela Medveďová / Sara R. Newell
The reality of many Danish and European cities is their cobblestone-covered roads and paths. While undoubtedly beautiful and historical, this surface type is far from accessible and can often cause difficulties or even complete exclusion for wheelchair or cane users or other people with decreased mobility.
Kathryn Larsen, a Copenhagen-based architect, aims to change this with her accessibility tile. This colourful and playful tile can create a level surface for wheelchair or cane users and be mass-produced using 3D printing.
Listening to the voice of the end-user
Kathryn has worked for several firms and realised that design firms often design products and spaces without discussing these with the people affected by the end design. "In general, we tend to not think about our end users or people who go through the spaces we're designing for them because it's all about pleasing our clients - and these two groups of people are not necessarily the same. A real estate developer will commission a huge housing project, but as an architect, you have to push to include elements that will give the people living in the apartments a nice life. It's always a battle between budget, time, and cost."
Kathryn explains that at a certain point, it becomes a discussion of "not my scope - not my problem". "The issue is when everyone starts to say this. That's how we end up with things that are really badly designed for everyday people. I'm trying to include everyday people in the conversation more."
Kathryn's been working with accessibility for quite some time now. When working on projects where she was a consultant, she was often in charge of bathroom accessibility. "At one point, I worked on a municipality project designing housing for people with autism. The different attitude struck me. It was all about the needs of the people who would be in these spaces. I was thinking about rounding corners or edges of things which people could bump against, creating an accessible kitchen they all could share, or creating sensory rooms."
She compares it with other large projects, where this thinking was entirely out of the discussion. "I remember trying to talk about how I had just seen a woman change her baby on the floor of the women's toilets since there wasn't a changing station." When she proposed integrating unisex and accessible changing stalls into the project, she was shut down and told by the lead architect to 'shove it' into the handicapped toilets that were absolutely bare bones. "But what if somebody who needs to use the bathroom can't because a parent is changing their baby - and that's the only toilet they can access? I know we can do better. It's completely doable on time and budget, especially if we implement it early in the planning process. But nobody knows how important it is, so it just never happens, and that's how we end up with an inaccessible space."
Teaming up for accessibility
Kathryn started to work on the accessibility tile project as a submission for the CHART Art Fair 2023. She collaborated with Cath Borch Jensen, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. "I read an excellent article from Cath where she was talking about the ridiculousness of putting an elevator in front of a building and saying: "We've done it, it's accessible now". But there is so much more that needs to happen, just for her to be able to enjoy an outing with her family."
So Kathryn reached out to Cath and asked her to collaborate on the competition at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. Cath replied that she strongly felt about that place since she couldn't access it because every entrance was lined with cobblestones. And while there is an accessibility path, she can only get to it by first going over cobblestones. "I hadn't realised that, and I asked her: "Can't somebody push you over the cobblestones?" And she said, "Yes, but it hurts, it's jarring, it can be uncomfortable sensory-wise". Just think about being on a bike and going over cobblestones. I talked to other people with handicapped family members and some of my family members with osteoporosis whose bones are easily injured - this is a public health issue, and we don't think about it."
So together with Cath, Kathryn started to design a flexible and modular solution. The resulting tile has a raised design surface, self-locking joints, and drainage. "It's still in the early stages, but we're learning from each prototype. We're doing it in our free time. I can model and prototype - and Cath and others are helping me test the prototypes."
The duo are currently making the prototypes out of PLA - but since PLA is only compostable material in industry conditions, Kathryn, whose focus is on working with natural materials, is experimenting with different biodegradable polymers in all biotopes. "That's what we really want this to be made of - we want to keep the colour but make it a sustainable solution. Because otherwise, it could have the potential to leak microplastics into the environment."
The idea is to use the tiles for events or temporary pop-ups to create more accessible pathways. "It's not about advocating for all the cobblestones to be torn up - it's about trying to make sure that if you want to enjoy an art festival or go to a gallery, that it is an option. It's about interacting with the existing architecture."
But going forward from a public planning proposal, Kathryn believes that people need to think about what kind of access they create for everyday people - because they often exclude people rather than include them. "Very few people are disabled and have a voice in the architecture forum. It's a massive blind spot we have. We always think that if we just do the bare minimum, that it's good enough, but we haven't actually taken the time to ask the people impacted by it, and we haven't integrated their experiences into our planning."
The accessibility tile project was recently selected for the Distributed Design residency, so the current focus is to create an open-source 3D print file and a maker's guide for other makers in the community. "The tile is something I would like to see put into production at some point. I want this to be an option for festivals, fairs, and any temporary situations, where we can create joyful, accessible paths so all people can come to the party."